How the Stars Aligned Over the River Jordan

By Andy Burd

Andy Burd wrote and performed the opening song in "Pope Michael": "It's Cool Down There by The River Jordan", which is available on the "Pope Michael" Soundtrack.

This is an abridged version of Andy's full story, which can be found here.

When Adam Fairholm asked to use my banjo pickin' and singin- of my song "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan" in Pope Michael, I felt that the stars had finally aligned for me. You see, a key part of my fantasy life had been leading up to this shining moment, starting with being born in Oklahoma in 1940.

Andy Burd with his paternal grandparents

That's when and where southern gospel "sacred songs" and old-time country music seeped into my soul. Then the hook of Americana roots music sank even deeper into my heart, driven by Earl Scruggs' syncopated five-string banjo bluegrass pickin'. That syncopated piercing sound also sparked my fantasy: maybe I could a real musician.

So, a year after arriving at the University of Notre Dame in 1958 and hearing Pete Seeger's custom-made long-neck five-string banjo energize the Weavers and ignite "the folk scare" of the '60's, I bought my first banjo. It was nearly unplayable, but appropriate: I couldn't play. It was my prop while singing with The Four Winds, the folk quartet that three other sophomores and I formed. We got gigs and I bought Pete Seeger's book "How To Play The Five-String Banjo". Learning Pete's up-picking basic strum with its "bum-ditty" rhythm also spurred my growing fantasy. And in 1960 when I saw Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio playing a Vega brand Pete Seeger model banjo, I realized that having such a primo banjo was critical to achieving my dream.

The Kingston Trio at Notre Dame

In 1975 I came across a well-used one and bought it for $600, twice what it cost new. This 1957 Vega is the the banjo I play on "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan." It took almost another 35 years, however, to develop my minimalist banjo pickin' ability and my original sacred song.

In 1985 I moved to Chicago, within walking distance of the Old Town School of Folk Music. There I took lessons from pro folkie Mark Dvorak. While practicing his Beginning Banjo regimen, I fell into writing "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan", first by noodling the melody with a two-chord progression that intrigued me: Em and D. Then, for some mysterious reason, I started developing lyrics with the two words "River Jordan." Eventually the chorus "It's cool down there by the River Jordan, and my Lord's gonna meet me there" flowed out of my mouth. Go figure.

Andy's Vega Seeger in its hardshell case

My musical fantasy stayed alive, but my Vega spent most of the late '80's and the '90's in a closet while I concentrated on business and the busy-ness of life. The River Jordan came back into play, however, during my wife's and my trip to the Holy Land in 1997. Donning pure white garments over our swimming suits, we were fully immersed in the waters of the Jordan in confirmation of our long-ago baptisms. And yes, it actually was cool down there.

FANTCH-1 class with Fr. Hesburgh

In the fall of 2006, I was invited to realize a different long-standing dream: teach at my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame. A senior Film, Television and Theater student in my first class of Forming and Nurturing The Creative Habit: Adam Fairholm. I learned that Adam played guitar, designed Web sites, created the comic strip Croissant in ND's daily newspaper, co-founded NDTV, and for his senior project was making a documentary film about a middle-aged guy in rural Kansas who truly believes that he is the one-and-only duly elected pope of the Roman Catholic Church. The next semester, Adam's 10-minute "Pope Michael" documentary was the stunner of the 2007 Notre Dame Student Film Festival.

I taught another semester, then quit in order to concentrate on making documentary fund-raising films. I also decided to finally and really learn how to play the banjo. Within two hours, the DVD "Beginning Bluegrass Banjo" by Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick had me doing the basic bluegrass forward-roll. That roll is mainly what I use on "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan." Son of a gun, I was becoming a real musician, including learning my current repertoire of 54 songs.

Andy performing with my Vega at the Acorn Theater

In 2009, while performing at an open mic, I was asked to be on a local radio program. "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan" was one of the four songs I did. I sent a CD of my 15 minutes of radio fame to Adam. He called me, told me he really liked my pickin' and singin', and so did his brother Derek. He asked me if they could use "It's Cool Down There By The River Jordan" in "Pope Michael."

Hot damn! 70 years after 1940, I am a banjo-pickin'-twangy-singin' real musician, with a song in a movie and for sale on Amazon and iTunes.

Life is good, and I have Adam and Derek Fairholm to thank for their benevolence. As I believe "Pope Michael" himself would say to you two lads: Pax vobiscum.

Andy performing at Acorn with Jim Harvey and a fiddle player

Andy Burd
August 1, 2010